One of the most heavily trafficked posts on this blog in 2011 was Nathan Jurgenson’s excellent essay on “faux-vintage” photography and the construction of meaning in documentation; given the discussion around this phenomenon, it’s interesting to consider photographer Michael Chrisman’s year-long photo project, especially in the details of how it was processed and how you and I are able to view it above.
On January 1st, 2011, Chrisman set a pinhole camera with a piece of photo-sensitive paper down in Toronto’s Port Lands and aimed it at the skyline. For 365 days the paper was exposed–a literal photograph of a year. On December 31st, Chrisman retrieved the camera and the image.
Given the move away from the slow and painstaking process of film development to the near-instantaneous capture and sharing of digital images, the project is striking. It is suggestive of the same kind of grasp for authenticity that Jurgenson highlights in his discussion of the faux-vintage photo, in line with the resurgence of interest in vinyl and other analog forms of media; it also suggests some kinship with Occupy Wall Street’s aesthetic of the analog in addition to –and sometimes in favor of — the digital. Speed and time are also worth consideration in this case; instead of a moment instantly captured and instantly shared, here is an image that took an extraordinarily long time to create - not a single instant but a collection of them, aggregated by streams of photons into a very long now, a physical artifact that can be viewed in a singular moment but which is, as a document, particularly time-laden.
But it’s in the development of the image itself that things become truly interesting. Because of the nature of the paper, the photo can’t be developed in a traditional darkroom without losing the image entirely. Instead the photo-sensitive paper is scanned digitally – but the scanner destroys the physical artifact of the image at the same instant that it captures it digitally. Digital and physical implode; in this case, only one of them survives the event.
In short, Chrisman’s project is a microcosmic look at how technology and documentation can work in ways counter to what we’ve become used to or to what we consider conventional, down to the actual process of the “implosion” of the physical and the digital. And again, time is crucial to consider: The method of capturing an image used here is one of the oldest forms of photography in existence – uber-vintage, as it were – but we can view it now only because of the use of contemporary digital technology; both are needed. The image takes a year to come into being but becomes a single captured instant, rendered even more instantaneous in its digitizing and now widely shareable like any other image. The result is not only aesthetically beautiful but conceptually evocative, and illuminates relationships that are too often easy to overlook.